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March 7th, 2010

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12:51 am - Nasty, Brutish, & Short Games and Stories
As I mentioned in my post yesterday, one of the primary criticisms of Blue Rose I have heard was that the setting was "too optimistic". I find this very odd for several reasons. The nation of Aldis (the heroic kingdom in the setting) is essentially a fantasy version of one of the more prosperous & egalitarian nations of Western Europe, and that's clearly ludicrously optimistic for many gamers. I can see two primary reasons for this idea.

One of them is specific to gaming, and as roseembolism mentions in a comment to my previous post, "gamers prefer crapsack worlds out of equal parts cynicism and a desire to have a world where their character's violent sociopathy can't be said to have negative consequences". The 2nd of these points is specific to gaming, and seems due to the fact that many (and perhaps most) gamers enjoy games where their characters act like brutal thugs and where causal murder is a common occurrence. There's certainly a place for such games, and there's honestly not much else you can do with any version of D&D, but I would like to think that many gamers, like myself, also enjoy other sorts of games, where the characters are either reasonably moral, or at least not quite so bloodthirsty. Of course, my own gaming style usually results in combat occurring no more than every four or five sessions, and usually less frequently. For example, in the last scenario I ran in the Star Trek game Becca and I have been alternating GMing, there were four sessions and the only violence in the entire scenario was a brief drunken brawl arranged as a diversion to allow two characters to escape pursuit.

I also think that part of the impetus for grim settings is for characters to be able to demonstrate their heroism by overthrowing evil, which implies that evil is in control and needs deposing. While that can be fun, I completely fail to see why it's any more fun or even any easier to run than a campaign where the PCs are defending something from evil people and vile plots – this is after all the plot of most action shows set in the modern day. And yet, there seems to be far more interest in overthrowing the evil rulers of a city or kingdom than in protecting a good city or kingdom from evil invaders, terrorists, or whatever, and I don't at all understand why this is – both seem to provide the same opportunities for enjoyable play. I generally prefer the 2nd sort of plots (preserving good, rather than overthrowing evil), but both can be fun. However, overthrowing evil is far more common in RPGs.

Of course, there's also an entire side of this that has nothing to do with gaming. Modern SF&F fiction, & especially SF is fairly grim, which is very odd. We live in troubled times, but the world is also clearly becoming a better place, with all forms of violence being well down from 30 or 40 years ago, the overall level of economic inequality in the world is declining, and the rate of growth of the world's population continues to decline faster than expected. We clearly live in a world filled with problems, but also of hope and wonder. More importantly, the world is not one that is in any way obviously doomed.

However, English language SF (which is all that I read) is filled with grim futures, and there's no shortage of grim fantasy (although it's far less ubiquitous). This grimness is especially common in US SF&F. These days, SF seems more grim, nihilistic, and hopeless than most other fiction, and I don't know why that is. In the early 1950s to late 1960s, SF was definitely the most optimistic form of fiction available, and that seems to be true of SF in China today. However, especially in the US, it's now become one of the gloomiest genres, which is I suspect one of the reasons that readership in SF is somewhat down. I suspect some of that change is due to an aging of the audience and the authors. I don't understand why people in their 40s and older are often so much gloomier than younger people – I'm definitely not. However, that trend is fairly clear. Regardless of the reason, it's far from easy to find SF that is even mildly optimistic and hopeful.

Edit: As I mentioned in a comment, all this is particularly notable, because SF was far less ubiquitously grim in the 90s, and 90s fantasy was also less grim overall

Consider a book that I've preordered: Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF, edited by Jetse de Vries. Optimistic SF has become a sufficiently niche market that it's getting a specialized anthology, and while I'll likely love to book, the fact that it exists is a sad statement indeed.
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(11 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2010 11:46 am (UTC)
Bad news sells. SF, in as much as it is seen as an imagining of the future, is seen as a form of prognostication, whether the authors intend it to be or not. So bad "news" about the future sells.

And since bad news sells, in our modern world of instant communications but late and rare analyses, we see more bad news than ever before. So pessimism is rife, because while some of us may aim for analysis of the world's actual state, we all evolved to believe anecdotes over data.

Of course there is some real bad news out there, one or two items of which have real, fairly troubling implications. I mean of course climate change and peak oil, and at least the former looks like there is just not the political will to do enough to stop, or even mitigate it. The latter may just possibly counter some of the effects of the former, which would be a neat co-incidence. I personally don't believe it will.

And science fiction from the 50's may have been optimistic, but it was also largely simplistic in its worldview.

[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2010 12:09 pm (UTC)
Except that 90s SF wasn't nearly as dark and grim as SF has been for the last decade, and I don't consider 90s SF to have been particularly simplistic. The major turn to grimness is quite new for SF. Darker SF was popular before 2001, but it was far less ubiquitous. Obviously, the turn to dark SF started in the wake of 9/11, but dear gods, I would have hope that people would have gotten over that by now - it's been almost a decade. I'll be very happy indeed if I never see another SF story about future terrorism. However, it's not just terrorism fiction, the entire tone of SF (and to a lesser degree fantasy) got far darker. I expected it to pass in a couple of years, but it hasn't.

As a side-note, climate change is obviously real, but peak oil as it's presented in every form that I've seen is utterly bogus nonsense. Some of it is promulgated by luddites dreaming of a non-industrial world (shudder), and the rest by the standard apocalypse junkies who got into Y2K and all of the other foolish doomsaying we've been seeing since at least WWII.
[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)
Let me suggest another possibility: it's easier to create (for instance) an "evil empire" which a broad selection of players will want to overthrow than it is to create a "good kingdom" which players will find it heroic to defend. (Especially considering that gamers not only run the gamut from Trotskyites to anarcho-fascists, but tend to cluster at the extremes.)

This is a problem in real-life politics, too. It's harder to build a coalition for something in particular than to build one against something-or-other. To do the latter, you just need to find (or invent) a villain; to do the former, you need to get people on board with an idea which -- like all real-world ideas -- has drawbacks, costs and risks.
[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)
Interesting point!
[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2010 10:37 pm (UTC)
Even if there isn’t a monolithic evil empire to be overthrown, just setting the default moral level of society rather low makes it easy to come up with bad situations that your players will want to rectify. Abundant evil makes it a lot easier for the GM who needs to come up with an adventure.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
My experience in games tends to be the opposite; crapsack game settings tend to end up with characters as bad as the setting. After all, if every institution uis scummy, what's the incentive to make things better?
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2010 07:03 am (UTC)
It depends on the inclinations of the players, and the expectations set by the game master. If the GM creates the expectation in the players that their characters’ actions can have lasting effects on the starts-out-crapsack world, there could be a lot fun in roleplaying through the story of how it becomes a better place.
[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
"there's honestly not much else you can do with any version of D&D"

I'm pretty sure that's false. Hell, the Blue Rose system isn't that different from D&D.

There's a rather obvious possible reason for older people to be gloomier: aging, health problems, being closer to death. And then for SF fans they can feel they didn't get their future of space and flying cars and fusion.
[User Picture]
Date:March 9th, 2010 11:28 pm (UTC)
IIRC, there's a filksong (Ubash the Balrog?) about being reporters in a D&D world. I don't know if it's ever been used as a game premise.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2010 12:02 am (UTC)
I find that as I get older, I am becoming more optimistic. I worried a lot about the apocalypse and punishment and dying a horrible death when I was younger. I don't worry about that stuff anymore, because I am learning that the universe is a much more forgiving place than I thought was possible. I have also lived long enough to remember the bullshit that was Y2K and to see various other doomsayers' predictions come to naught.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2010 04:34 am (UTC)
I find as I get older I tolerate less and less "stupidity" with gaming - that is to say min-max/power gamers, or those who have no actual interest in roll playing. I also find I have increasingly less interest in playing, what for all intents and purposes are, evil characters. Then again, when I develop a character it's rather well thought and even researched.

That said, I do like settings like Shadowrun, which is very dystopic, but allows for heroism - if the party is geared that way. I have played, and run, D&D which is very thematic and condusive to extremely good roll play. Personally, I think it's up to the one running the game.

On to peak oil... Speaking as a Canadian, the tar/oil sands are a bane. We cannot extract the damnable oil nearly efficiently enough, and actually waste far more resources than we gain, in water alone. And this is to say nothing of the environmental damage, and health to the Native communities living with them in their back yard. Our government, and on behalf, more than less, of the oil companies is actually impeding effectively dealing with climate change on a global scale, never mind knowingly poisoning it's own people.

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